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Going Formal

Despite All the Dressing Down and Casual Fridays, Formal Evening Wear Still Has Its Place
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

The question of the hour is, at the fin of this siècle: Are there any rules left? The answer to that is a definite maybe.

But perhaps the more interesting question is: Do we still have a sense of occasion? The idea of social ritual, where a certain etiquette and dress are prescribed? The answer to that is not as clear.

I'm thinking about what used to be called evening dress. It was worn in the evening, of course, but at its height in the Edwardian Age, evening wear constituted a variety of outfits worn for different occasions. There were smoking jackets and dinner jackets (worn for house dinners and informal evening parties, but never when ladies were present; it was a Victorian verity that the ladies were too refined and delicate to see a man's legs covered only by trousers), tailcoats (for evenings in public), and court dress (should one be lucky enough to be invited to an official royal function).

In the early years of the twentieth century, a gentleman's wardrobe was prescribed by the hour: morning coats till noon (or a short "stroller" jacket at a private gathering), lounge (business) suits until 6 p.m. (although swallowtails, striped trousers and top hats were still de rigueur in many professions), then evening clothes of one sort or another, depending on the occasion.

Of course, the high degree of prescription in dress was merely an objective correlative for the greater sense of rigidity and ritual about occasions. Every sport, for instance, not only dictated its own specific outfit for participants, but for observers as well. The most famous story about a breech in this etiquette took place one day in the early 1900s during the London season. King Edward VII happened to glance out a window and saw his master of the household, Sir Derek Keppel, entering the palace wearing a bowler hat. "You scoundrel!" the king yelled at the man. "What do you mean by coming in here in that rat-catcher fashion? You never see me dress like that in London!" Tough man with the proprieties, was Edward.

The king was a stickler for detail in an age of details. He once told a friend, who had proposed to accompany him in a tailcoat to a picture exhibition before lunch: "I thought everyone must know that a short jacket is always worn with a silk hat at a private view in the morning."

Edward would be rotating in his hand-carved coffin if he could see what some people's approach to coordinating outfits is these days. While we're mercifully relieved of all that stifling rigidity, the downside to it is that, when the rules are thrown out, unbridled freedom often leads to chaos, confusion, frustration and terrible insecurity. Not to mention that some folks should be given warnings about assaulting the environment--you know, like obscene billboards and such.

Fortunately, there's still one garment, the time-honored tuxedo, that prevents such fashion fiascoes. The one decidedly good thing about wearing a tux is that a man doesn't need to make any decisions or worry whether he's making a mistake: the prescribed outfit, top to toe, works perfectly fine. That is, works well if one knows the occasion calls for "Black Tie." There again the Edwardians provided the rules governing the occasion by stipulating on the invitation what type of dress was expected. These days "White Tie," "Full Dress," "Decorations and Medals" and other such instructions are quaintly arcane at most functions. And the best place to see a tailcoat is in an old Fred Astaire film. Generally, the only men who own their own tails are diplomats and symphony orchestra conductors. If you are escorting a debutante to a fancy ball, rent.

On the other hand, the tuxedo--which has been with us since the late 1880s--is very much still an option for sartorial p.m. elegance.

"There used to be a dress code," says Derrill Osborn, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of men's clothing at Neiman Marcus. "And we seem to have gotten away from it for a while. But we're noticing a movement towards dressing up--which includes the area of formal wear. There is a bit of protocol coming back into life, and our job is to educate our consumer about what to wear. For example, many invitations these days read 'Your Interpretation of Black Tie,' which can be fun. It's not protocol as we're accustomed to thinking of it, but it gets people thinking."

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